- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

The rift and revolt on the Democratic Party's discontented left could be the undoing of Al Gore's troubled presidential campaign.

Its leaders complain that Gore is running a timid "status quo" campaign that doesn't stand for much and has failed to excite and energize his party's liberal wing a critical power bloc in his party's base that could desert Gore in droves for arch liberal Ralph Nader, who is running on the Green Party ballot.

The first fiery salvo from these leftist malcontents came last week from former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who accused Mr. Gore of running a boring, lackluster campaign whose agenda lacked the kind of red-meat proposals that will satisfy the party's hungry, long-dormant liberal wing, which seems to be coming to life again.

In a bitter broadside attack against Mr. Gore, with whom he worked closely in the Clinton administration, Mr. Reich told fellow Democrats that if the vice president did not change his agenda soon, George W. Bush will "win by default."

"Al Gore's problem is that he's acting as if he's desperate to be president, but sounding as if he doesn't want to do anything new once elected," he said in an article in the American Prospect, a monthly devoted to spreading the liberal gospel.

If Mr. Gore continues "to represent little more than the status quo, he won't be president," Mr. Reich warned.

"Talk about a mixed message. Voters could understand why someone would be driven to get into the Oval Office if he were intent on making a lot of changes. But Gore's message has been that we should stay the course. Keep cutting the deficit. Don't tinker with Social Security. Don't take any risks," he said.

The liberal-labor activist wing desperately needs something to galvanize its members, but Mr. Gore has failed to animate and rally his party behind him. Mr. Bush is attracting nearly 40 percent of union households, once the core of the Democratic coalition. "Gore's fighting to preserve the status quo. Who wants to go to battle on these grounds?" Mr. Reich said.

Mr. Reich is no Gore ally looking to improve his candidacy. He endorsed former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley in the primaries because he was the more liberal candidate, and accused Mr. Gore in March of being "to the right of Bradley on almost every important issue."

He characterized Mr. Gore's proposal to quickly pay off the national debt as "worse than Reaganomics. It's Coolidge-omics."

But a survey of party liberals over the past week shows Mr. Reich's criticisms of Mr. Gore represent the views of many deeply frustrated party liberals, who say Mr. Gore is not liberal enough for their tastes and that they are tired of going along with the administration's incrementalism and triangulation for the past eight years.

"There's no question that Reich's article reflects the frustration of a lot of Democrats," said Jeff Faux, president of the liberal-labor Economic Policy Institute.

"After eight years of being good soldiers, there are a lot of Democrats who are getting restless. We've been playing defense for so long, it's about time we had an inspiring agenda, and we haven't had that from Gore," Mr. Faux told me.

"Now we have Gore saying that we have to reduce the deficit to zero, and that puts him to the right of Herbert Hoover," he said.

Americans for Democratic Action's national director, Amy Isaacs, says she, too, has been picking up "general rumblings" on the left. "Gore is not energizing his party's base right now. He should be extremely concerned that those who don't care will stay home on Election Day," she said.

Miss Isaacs believes the liberal estrangement toward Mr. Gore is significant. "There's more concern now that Nader could peel off votes from Gore."

For other party liberals, like Bob Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future, Mr. Gore has yet to "create a message about what he's going to do as president. We haven't seen that yet."

That view is dismissed by Gore campaign strategists, who note he has embraced a big-spending agenda for education, the environment and health care, not to mention more gun controls. The Wall Street Journal totaled up all of Mr. Gore's proposals, and they come to $1.9 trillion over 10 years. How much more liberal can he be, they ask.

Mr. Gore's chief spokesman, Chris Lehane, says the party's liberal power brokers Teddy Kennedy, the AFL-CIO, big-city mayors, and pro-choice feminists "have been with Al Gore from the beginning."

At the same time, Garry South, a key Gore ally and adviser to Gov. Gray Davis of California, points out that if liberals like Mr. Reich had been in charge of the party, "We would not have won the White House in '92 and '96."

"We Democrats do not win presidential elections with traditional liberal candidates. That bugs the left wing of the party, but that's a fact," Mr. South told me. "It's no accident that the last three Democratic presidents were from the South. We simply don't win the presidency with Northern liberals."

But no candidate of either party has a prayer of winning the presidency unless he has the full and enthusiastic support of his party. The rumblings on the Democratic left show Mr. Gore still hasn't nailed down his base a dangerous sign at this stage of the 2000 election process.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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